I keep a stash of dollar bills in my car so that I won’t miss an opportunity to roll down my window, greet whoever approaches me, press a few bucks into their hand, and wish them well. In exchange for this paltry contribution I get a bit of news from the street, a friendly hello, and a genuinely warm smile. It is more than I get from my usual interactions with people in my little suburban town, a place where we are deeply invested in appearing as though we don’t need any help.
Last summer, while I was walking down the Mall in Washington, D.C., two panhandlers called out to passersby, including me. You know the patter: “Good afternoon, ma’am. Excuse me, ma’am, do you have any spare change?” I decided some years ago that when anyone asks me a question, it is my obligation to give them my full attention and to respond honestly to them. This commitment started as an experiment and became one of the most delightful spiritual disciplines I have ever undertaken. I don’t understand why, quite yet, but it has something to do with sparing myself the stress of having to judge others so frequently. I stop for everyone. I answer everyone honestly. If they ask me if I have any spare change or money and I do have some, I tell them that. And almost all of the time, I give it to them. On the Mall, I stopped to respond to one of the men, already digging in my purse for my wallet. “Thank you for looking at me,” he said.
I was outraged on his behalf, and I exploded. “Don’t ever thank someone for looking at you! If people are so rude that they won’t even look at you, then there’s something wrong with them, not you!” The man, who was already sitting on the curb, laughed so hard that he fell over on the grass. I sat down with him and laughed, and talked, and then we took a long walk in the city and had lunch. We talked about poverty and addiction, about music, about white people and black people, and about loneliness. He knew everyone in the area—all the doormen and workers—all of whom turned their heads almost entirely around on their necks to watch us walk away together.
What we determined that day, my friend and I, is that it is exhausting and depressing and lonely to be on the street asking for money, and that it is also exhausting, depressing, and lonely to be the one who walks by averting her eyes, feeling guilty for ignoring the human being asking for help and angry for being confronted and discomfited by such need. We figured out that he drinks too much because he’s lonely and scared—and we figured out that I talk to people on the street for the same reasons.
I find, perhaps not surprisingly, that people on the street are far more honest, open, and attentive than their ostensibly more together and successful counterparts, whose attention you might sustain for a few minutes between phone calls and texts and important obligations. My practice of responding to everyone with equal attention is about trying to live more fully into religious commitments around justice, equity, and compassion. But I also do it because I’m lonely and I want to see what can happen, how I can be brought into human relationship by making myself available to it wherever that might occur.
“They’re afraid,” my friend told me when I asked him how many people refused to even look at him when he asked them for money. “I know,” I said. “If they only knew what they were missing.”